For years, stacks of coupons liberally dished out to schools by fast-food companies have offered a cheap and easy way to pat students on the back.
Got perfect attendance? Have a free cheeseburger. Made honor roll? Here’s a free milkshake.
But, some schools in Western North Carolina are starting to “just say no.”
One of those is Waynesville Middle School, where fast-food coupons for free fries have been traded in for somewhat healthier fare like smoothies and chicken tenders.
During the past year, several teachers at Waynesville Middle raised concerns about passing out coupons for unhealthy fast food to students. Yet, it was hard to totally wean the school off the free giveaways.
“For a corporation to donate things is wonderful for us as a school because we don’t have a lot of money,” said Christine Basulto, the lead teacher at Waynesville Middle.
After discussing the issue among teachers this summer, the school asked McDonalds if it could provide coupons for healthier menu items instead.
“It was important to us that we weren’t handing the kids a Big Mac. I feel we have found a happy medium,” said Basulto.
Still, it’s not perfect. The parent that hits the drive-thru with a free coupon in hand rarely pulls away with only that item.
“We can’t control what else they purchase,” Basulto said.
Therein lies one concern with the free fast-food coupons that are nearly ubiquitous in schools.
“Instead of walking in for a free Frosty and walking out with a free Frosty, they are walking out with a Frosty, burger and fries,” said Adam Zolotar, a family physician in Chapel Hill and vice president of N.C. Institute for Medicine. Not to mention the fast food likely purchased for the rest of the family members in tow.
“This isn’t charitable work. This is marketing. And we are using our children for marketing,” Zolotar said.
If kids get a fast-food coupon, parents certainly have an option whether to use it or not, pointed out Bill Nolte, assistant superintendent for Haywood County Schools.
“If you get a coupon, if you think it is not healthy, don’t use it,” Nolte said.
In Haywood County, individual schools have their own discretion over what type of rewards to offer students — and it may often come down to what the school can afford.
“We are down $5 million and 129 full-time positions over the past seven years,” Nolte said, citing the financial realities faced by schools.
As a result, the coupons offered for free by fast-food restaurants have become a standard fixture. While fast-food companies have added healthy items to their menus in recent years, truth be told, a coupon for a yogurt parfait probably doesn’t excite kids as much as traditional fast-food fare.
“Fast-food is something most kids respond to pretty well,” said Lib Jicha, a social worker at Cullowhee Valley Elementary in Jackson County.
Nonetheless, Cullowhee Valley ruled out the idea of fast-food coupons when brainstorming rewards for a new perfect attendance program it rolled out this year, except perhaps for Subway coupons.
“We talked about if we were going to do fast food that we wanted it to be a healthy option,” Jicha said.
It isn’t always clear exactly how the coupons make their way into the classrooms. As far as the teachers are concerned, coupons seem to randomly show up in their boxes during the course of the year.
Such was the case with six Shoney’s coupons that recently appeared in the box of Julie Smith, a second-grade teacher at North Canton Elementary. Smith in turn gave the coupons — good for a free kid’s meal — to six students who consistently did well in class.
Earlier this year, both Smith’s daughters came home from school with a Burger King coupon — good for a 99-cent kid’s meal with the purchase of an adult meal. Apparently the school had scored enough of the coupons to give one to every student.
But as with the Shoney’s coupons, the vouchers incited parents to buy something, too, in order to cash in their kid’s freebie.
That begs the question: can any business send home promotional coupons with school children as a marketing device?
Coupons passed out as rewards don’t always come from eating places. At Swain Middle School, a stack of coupons recently showed up from the Fun Factory, a kids’ amusement center in nearby Franklin. The coupons — good for a free hour of play — initially came into the central office. They were dispensed out to the schools, and then down to the teachers.
“Teachers can give them out for whatever they like,” said Susan Walker, the secretary at Swain Middle.
In most cases, it seems the coupons are funneled through a school’s Parent Teacher Organization before ultimately making their way into kids’ hands. Since the coupons actually come through the PTO, the school itself has an arms-length relationship with the business dishing out the coupons.
“There is a board policy about the school supporting one business over another, but the PTO can,” said Sherri Arrington, the principal of Junaluska Elementary in Haywood County.
While the coupons seem like a good deal to the PTO volunteers who amass them, the schools aren’t always sure what to do with them when they show up.
Just last week, Arrington found herself in possession of eight coupons for a free Frosty at Wendy’s, courtesy of the PTO. Arrington decided to give them to bus drivers to reward students who consistently have good behavior on the bus. But, she realized the coupons can have their pitfalls.
“One reason I am not really crazy about handing these out in the classroom is if you hand out a free milkshake and you take your kid through there, they say, ‘Oh I want a hamburger, too,’” Arrington said.
A marketing ploy
Several fast-food restaurants — including Bojangles’ and Zaxby’s — host monthly fundraising nights for school PTOs. Families earn money for their school by eating at the designated restaurant on a designated night. At Junaluska Elementary, a frequent participant in these fundraising nights, literature is sent home with every student telling parents what night to eat out and where.
The practice is fairly widespread. Zolotar, the family physician in Chapel Hill and vice president of N.C. Institute for Medicine, has had his children come home from school with a sticker affixed to the shirts instructing them to eat at Chick-Fil-A that night as a fundraiser.
“They are actually manipulating our children to consume fast food for the purpose of raising money for the PTO,” he said. “We can’t use our kids as marketing devices for fast-food restaurants.”
Especially not in today’s society, when more children than ever are overweight. In North Carolina, 30 percent of children ages 10 to 17 are overweight or obese, according to the 2012 Child Health Report Card put out by the N.C. Institute for Medicine.
An Early Childhood Obesity Prevention task force under the auspices of the N.C. Institute of Medicine has been studying the cause of the epidemic.
“Essentially, we move less and eat more,” Zolotar said.
Kids are spending too much time in front of a screen, and not enough time moving. But the quality of food children consume has also declined — and a fast-food culture is part and parcel to that.
“There is an awful lot of interest in the fast-food industry getting our kids hooked at an early age,” Zolotar said.
Schools should be more savvy in turning down the unhealthy freebies, according to said Gordon Filepas, a national health author and expert on ending childhood obesity.
“Using fast food as a reward couldn’t be more wrong,” Filepas said. “It is like a drug dealer standing at the edge of a playground and saying ‘I’ll give you a free bag of this stuff, go try it.’”
Filepas, who recently published the book Lean And Healthy To 100, said it is a stretch to call fast-food “food” at all. That underscores what he believes is a simple solution to childhood obesity — eating nutritious, mineral rich, whole foods.
“America is the most overfed and undernourished country on the planet,” Filepas said.
A pat on the back nudges students in the right direction
While the free pencil or end-of-year pizza party hasn’t totally gone the way of the dinosaur, schools in Western North Carolina are getting creative these days when it comes to rewarding students.
At North Canton Elementary in Haywood County, two students who earned the coveted “Principal’s Award” were recently treated to lunch with the principal — in style. The head cafeteria worker spread a white linen table cloth over one of the lunchroom tables, set it with real silverware and donned a chef’s hat before coming out to serve the kids.
“Everybody could see that and say ‘Oh that’s what I want to do,’” said Julie Smith, a second-grade teacher at North Canton.
Rewarding positive behavior — rather than simply punishing bad behavior — is the backdrop for many of the new incentive programs being tried by schools.
At North Canton Elementary, every student was issued a necklace at the beginning of the year and can earn beads when they are caught doing good. The Parent Teacher Organization put up around $1,200 to buy all the necklaces and beads to get the incentive program started, Smith said.
Students also collect “punches” on a punch card, which they wear in a lanyard around their neck during the day.
Collect enough punches, and students can get into the school dance or other after-school events, like a popcorn and movie night, for free.
Swain County Schools have also jumped on the positive reinforcement band wagon. At East Elementary, students earn paper “high-fives” across a huge spectrum of good behaviors, whether they’re in the hallway, the bathroom or a school assembly.
“The whole idea is to catch them doing good and use positive reinforcement,” said Catherine Cuthbertson, school psychologist with Swain County Schools.
Every week, the names of students who get “high-fives” are put in a drawing for the chance to pick a prize from a treasure chest. The chest of prizes are simple — a top, a bouncy ball, handclappers, even Star Trek figures donated by Cutherbertson’s husband.
On top of the “high fives,” every student has their own star chart posted in their classroom. Teachers give out stars when the student does something good, but the goal is to catch every student, at some point in the week, doing something good.
“Then they will know what it feels like to be rewarded for good behavior. It tries to get them cycling in the right direction,” Cutherbertson said.
Ultimately, the less time teachers spend on discipline, the more time they can spend on teaching, Cutherbertson said.
In fact, the strategy has been promoted at the state level as one of the best ways to achieve a school-wide shift in behaviors. The method even has its own acronym: PBIS, or positive behavior intervention and support.
Recognition doesn’t always have to be an actual object or prize to makes students feel special. At Cullowhee Valley Elementary, students with perfect attendance get their name on a bulletin board and called out over the loudspeaker every nine weeks — that, and a free pencil. At the end of each semester, they will also be treated to a special pizza party.
Waynesville Middle School has ratcheted up its incentives for perfect attendance this year — and perhaps more importantly for being on time. Every month, the school stages a special event for students who come to school on time every day, ranging from a kickball game to a pizza party to a movie.
Most schools reward attendance every quarter, but students have responded well to having a fresh slate every month.
“Being able to dangle that incentive carrot more frequently paid off,” said Christine Basulto, the lead teacher at Waynesville Middle. “We’ve had a significant drop in tardies.”